The Mississippi-born singer loved famous hymns, including "Amazing Grace," "In the Garden," "He Is My Everything" and "How Great Thou Art," as much as he loved peanut butter. Now, a new five-CD release uncovers the soulful side of this rock 'n' roll legend.
Scholars from the Deep South to the Far West have wrestled with the Elvis phenomenon, exploring his complicated personality, his love-hate relationship with his roots and his unparalleled celebrity in the years since his death.
Despite the success of his rock music and his movies, Presley received coveted Grammy awards only for his gospel recordings and live performances. The best of that music will be released in March in Christian bookstores and retail shops through Provident Music Distribution and RCA. The set offers 56 recordings, many of them rare.
Many baby boomers remember being -- or watching -- the screaming teenagers who flocked to Presley's concerts. Social historians recall the dismayed parents who blasted his onstage gyrations. But Presley had another side, steeped in the decisive rhythms of Southern religious music. Your spine may tingle just a little when you hear Presley croon "I Have Confidence" or belt out "I'm Gonna Walk Dem Golden Stairs." His is the voice of a man sometimes undone by belief.
"He took the gospel performing style and rocked it, becoming the celebrity he was."
Wilson, author of the 1995 book "Judgment and Grace in Dixie: From Faulkner to Elvis" (University of Georgia Press), says faith defined Presley because it empowered him to be who he believed himself to be.
"He came from a very poor family, yet his religious faith told him 'Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,' to quote a popular Southern religious song that children sing," Wilson said. "Just as his mother told him he was special, so his religious faith gave him much inspiration."
Reared in the Assemblies of God, Presley had sensibilities shaped by that Pentecostal tradition, which is rooted in the early 20th century revivals that added prophecy, speaking in tongues, and faith-healing to the already colorful spectrum of soulful Southern religion.
The denomination believes in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Wilson said, noting that music also is very important to the tradition. "The Spirit was alive and well in Elvis. He was drawn to religious music all his life. That extraordinary session at Sun Records, released as the `Million Dollar Sessions,' showed Elvis' familiarity with the classic songs of the Southern gospel tradition."
While white Pentecostalism's rituals and behaviors shaped him, Presley crossed many traditional boundaries, also absorbing the style and ethos of Southern black gospel music.
An Elvis fan once told scholar Erika Doss, "Elvis knew the Bible better than most ministers do and studied many different religions, although he only practiced Christianity."
"Much of Elvis' popularity in the mid-1950s and the media attention he then received can be ascribed to his cross-race stylistics," Doss writes, "to the ways that he mixed and blended black and white music and black and white modes of performance into the emergent hybrid of rock and roll."
Like Presley's fans who keep small shrines to him in their homes, decorate their apartments with his posters and clippings, or immerse themselves in his music, Doss made pilgrimages to Graceland. She studied what have become annual rites in August, when Elvis Week is held.
"Early on, he's pretty mainstream in his religious beliefs, attending First Assembly of God churches in Tupelo and Memphis," Doss said in an interview. "He recorded various gospel albums including 'His Hand in Mine' in 1960 and 'How Great Thou Art' in 1967 and 'You'll Never Walk Alone' in 1971."
"He grew up in a mixed-race culture, having kind of diverse, ritualistic religious experiences, both white and black," Doss said. "People talk about how he sat on the steps of black churches and listened to singers.
"I think he grew up watching preachers express themselves physically and I think he incorporated that onto the stage."
A lot of fans told her Presley would've been a preacher if he hadn't gravitated to rock 'n' roll.
As rock matured and Presley aged, he turned more introspective, delving in the 1960s into New Age ideas, spiritualism and mysticism. When he died, a book about the Shroud of Turin, "The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus," was found with his body, Doss said.
Though his roots were in Christianity, Presley sought a more global religiosity. "Whether he practiced any of that is questionable," Doss said.
And she sees him leaving a mixed legacy: He bought into the "gospel of success" but is also remembered for his generosity to charities.
"In a sense, he felt he was placed on the planet to bring joy to others, maybe not in terms of financial giving, but in terms of his music," she said.
Another fan told Doss: "I'm not a religious person, but I'm drawn to Elvis as though he were a disciple of God. That's probably as close to religion as I'll ever get."